Mission Hill and the Emotional Well-Being of Children | IDEA

Mission Hill and the Emotional Well-Being of Children

Posted by Dana Bennis on Mar 19, 2013 - 10:54 AM

This is a guest post by Matthew Knoester, a National Board Certified Teacher and former teacher at the Mission Hill School, and currently Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Evansville. Matthew recently wrote a book about the Mission Hill School, entitled Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School (Teachers College Press, 2012) and edited a book entitled International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education (Peter Lang, 2012).

As a former teacher at the Mission Hill School, it has been wonderfully moving to see the depictions of Mission Hill in the beautifully wrought videos created by Tom and Amy Valens and produced by Sam Chaltain. While I was a teacher there, and since--as I became a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and now as a professor of Education, among other “hats”—I have struggled to describe the school, its many unique features and the way the adults in the school strategize and address the various challenges they face as educators in an urban public school, and in a deeply unequal society.

People with whom I have spoken about the school often ask, “is it real?” and “how do you know it works?” Well, I wrote a book about the school, trying to answer those questions but now these film clips have provided color, sound, and a vivid but concise new way of illustrating important aspect of what the school offers. Most importantly, perhaps, the videos raise questions. What awakens the mind of a child? How can teachers create a culture that communicates care and respect for the personhood of each child? These questions do not have easy answers, of course, but the videos begin to answer the questions, and the website points to additional resources.

Lately I have been speaking about the Mission Hill School, and the important set of educational topics the story brings along with it, with an increasingly international audience. Last week I spent several days in New Orleans, where I participated in the annual meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). CIES, founded in 1956, has a membership of about 2,500 educators from dozens of countries around the world, and a good number of them were present in New Orleans last week. I was fortunate to be part of panel of educational scholars speaking from various international perspectives about struggles for democratic education. While the struggles differed in many ways, the desire for democratic education—that is, inclusive education responsive to the needs of students and families, and for the purpose of democratic citizenship (as opposed to only test scores or technical skills for the workforce, for example)—can be found around the world.

Some of the similarities in other countries to U.S. struggles are striking. Did you know, for example, that in South Korea, a large number of teachers, parents, and students have organized mass demonstrations and have built a movement against the enormous pressure put on students due to high-stakes standardized testing? In the photo below, Mi Ok Kang, a former teacher in South Korea and currently an assistant professor at Utah Valley University, demonstrates, using a glass of water and a cup of cream, what happens when political pressure builds (splattered water).

Dr. Kang described how Korea has the highest child suicide rate in the OECD (economically rich countries), and much of the pressure placed on students is related to the extreme competitiveness students feel about these tests and the possibility of college entrance. Dr. Kang was part of the panel in which I participated, along with educators from Kenya, China, and the United States. These panelists  also contributed to the book I edited entitled International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education. (Missing from this panel, but included in the book, were contributors from India, Israel, and Brazil).

Min Yu, Wangari Pauline Gichiru, and Matthew Knoester step away from the conference to enjoy the New Orleans riverside.
As the fourth and most recent chapter of A Year at Mission Hill film series illustrates so beautifully, paying close attention to the emotional well-being of children should be paramount, because it generally precedes “academic” learning, but also because it is the right thing to do. While policy makers and educators in countries like the U.S. and South Korea seem to care deeply about competing internationally on tests, one result of focusing intently on higher test scores may be a very costly one—the neglect of the emotional needs of a large number of children. A high suicide rate might be just the most alarming aspect of this focus. In the United States, children may be more likely to resist schooling, to drop out of school at an early age, or to conclude that “I am not smart” if they do not pass - or when they feel deeply frustrated - when taking the now ubiquitous tests, starting in ever younger grades.
The Mission Hill School represents a counter-narrative. As the fourth video chapter demonstrates, it is a school that focuses intently on the emotional needs of children, and often centers the curriculum around community building and improving the quality of communication and cooperation. After all, the school is based on principles of democratic citizenship, the original purpose of public schooling in the United States. The Mission Hill School, and the film series about the school, gently reminds us what that might look like, and that it is not only possible, but a desirable alternative. 
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